In an extremely disturbing development, North Korean state television is apparently being forthright about the ailing health of Kim Jong-un. The official media of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s decision to be honest about Kim’s wellbeing could mean that the reclusive state’s leader is in even worse shape than they are admitting.
Kim, who has not been seen in public for several weeks, reportedly has been suffering from “discomfort.” DPRK media also recently broadcast images of the 31-year-old leader limping.
“The wealth and prosperity of our socialism is thanks to the painstaking efforts of our marshal, who keeps lighting the path for the people, like the flicker of a flame, despite suffering discomfort,” A Reuters translation of an hour-long documentary broadcast on DPRK television read.
“In July, North Korean state television showed a video of Kim appearing to limp during a ceremony to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of his grandfather, former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung,” The Washington Post reported. “The unusual footage prompted many to speculate about Kim’s health.”
The notoriously hermetic state maintains a rigorously opaque media. It is unlikely that the decision to reveal that Kim’s health is in poor shape is part of a thaw in the DPRK’s totalitarian press culture.
The Guardian reported on Friday that Kim may be suffering from serious medical issues:
The South Korean news agency quoted a source said to be familiar with North Korean affairs as saying that Kim was suffering from gout, diabetes and high blood pressure. Kim Il-sung, Kim’s grandfather and North Korea’s founder, and his father Kim Jong-il both suffered from gout, as does his elder brother, Kim Jong-nam.
Yonhap’s source said that a North Korean medical team had visited Germany and Switzerland, where Kim is thought to have been educated, to consult colleagues about his health issues.
Speculation is mounting that Kim, who may have been trying to gain weight to resemble his revered grandfather, was paying the price for his penchant for alcohol and rich food.
It is entirely possible that Kim is merely dealing with gout which, while extremely painful, is not life-threatening. Diabetes and high blood pressure, however, are.
It would certainly be ironic if the leader of a country which starves its own citizens as a matter of course were to lose an untimely battle with diabetes because he was intentionally seeking to gain weight, but there would be nothing funny about the aftermath of Kim’s premature demise.
Kim has no sons. His older brother, Kim Jong-nam, fell out of favor years ago and is believed to be living in China. He has also denounced his brother as merely a “symbol.” Kim Jong-chul, Kim Jong-un’s other brother, is reportedly close to “The Great Successor” and is most likely to be tapped to follow him in the event of an emergency.
There are concerns, however, that the internal Kim family dynamics are increasingly unpredictable. Both Kims supervised the gruesome execution of Jang Song Thaek, once considered the country’s second-in-command and the Kims uncle. “Jang was seen by many experts as a regent behind North Korea’s Kim dynasty and a key connection between the hermit nation and its ally China,” NBC reported following Jang’s execution in January.
The DPRK has no formal process of succession, however, and the country has survived the tumult following the 1994 death of the nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung, due the relative health of the Kim dynasty.
If it were to be snuffed out prematurely, there is no guarantee the secretive state’s military leadership would be able to avoid an internal fight over succession – one which could easily devolve into armed conflict. If the regime in Pyongyang were to collapse, it would easily become the gravest crisis Northeast Asia has confronted since World War II. It would be a crisis that would necessitate extensive American financial, diplomatic, and military commitments to manage.
But it’s probably just gout.